When we first met the Rambows, Avis (Mrs. Rambow) was a junior high school English teacher in Muskegon. Her first teaching job after graduating from teacher training in Iowa had been in an elementary school in Puerto Rico where she taught English to Spanish speaking children. She had studied Spanish in college. When Muskegon Junior College was organized about 1935 or 36, Avis applied for and got the job of Spanish instructor. She also taught classes in English and teacher training. I got interested in studying Spanish myself because of our contacts with her and the textbooks she used. About the only time I had for study was at meals so there was never much conversation at the table. All of us had books propped up in front of us. Spanish grammar and vocabulary is so similar to French that I picked it up fast, that is, I was able to read Spanish without trouble. To be able to speak it and understand what people were saying, however, I knew I would have to mingle with Spanish speaking people.
By the end of the thirties, Mexico had completed her first paved road from the American border to Mexico City and the Mexican government began a campaign to attract tourists. By 1935 the country was beginning to recover from the bad effects of the revolution of 1910 which had spawned a horde of bandits who even raided across the Rio Grande at times, as Pacho Villa had after he turned against Carranza. The new road, a link in the Pan-American Highway, ran from Laredo, Texas and was supposed to eventually reach to the southern tip of South America. There was a lot of publicity about it in the Muskegon Chronicle when it was opened and one day Yvette surprised me by suggesting that we spend the summer in Mexico. Avis Rambow had taken her two boys, Paul and Bill, in the summer of 1939 and had had no trouble. Yvette had studied Spanish under a private tutor while she was in Ottawa. A hint was all I needed. We started studying Spanish together and when the summer of 1940 came around we were ready to start for the border. We still had our Dodge.
The interstate highway system was not yet in existence in 1940 but all of the main roads were paved. We stopped in Peoria, of course, but otherwise avoided population centers as much as possible. I remember it was very hot as we were crossing Texas and an enterprising farmer had set up a metal tank, filled it with water, chunks of ice and hundreds of big, juicy watermelons. The youngsters wanted to stay there the rest of the day but the only shade was the windmill which pumped the water. At Laredo we had a room in a cabin - they were beginning to look like motels by 1940 - with orange trees in the front yard and we were permitted to pick our own grapefruit for breakfast, a new experience for all of us.
We didn’t stop in Monterey, the largest town on our way, but went right on to Linares, arriving there between three and four in the afternoon. Instead of going to the hotel, like most Americans, our smattering of Spanish enabled us to find rooms in a private house. It was an interesting experience, tho not the most restful place to sleep, as it was on the main highway thru town where big trucks went by all night. Our rooms were directly on the street. I could have reached thru the iron bars of our open window and touched anyone going by on the sidewalk. The house was built in the form of a hollow square with a garden in the center which contained a fountain, flowers, iron seats and trees. Before we went out to explore the town and eat supper at the hotel, the lady of the house, who was about 45, came with one of her daughters to talk to use, our first opportunity for a long conversation in Spanish, all about our families, our trip and what we might like to see. She recommended the hotel dining room. The evening meal was not served until 9 pm, however, and it was dark by that time. The only light was 15-watt bulbs with red paper shades. We couldn’t see what we were eating.
The second day we reached Tamazunchale (Renamed Tomas and Charlie by Americans) where we took a room in the motel operated by the gas station. Tamazunchale was full of Indians in white pajamas and wearing wide-brimmed hats and carrying machetes, the yard long knives they use for everything from butchering a pig to cutting sugar cane. They could be used in a fight too, I presume. The Indian women all wore rebozos (long shawls) in dark blues, greens and browns in which most of them carried a baby while they balanced baskets of other things on their heads. Both men and women work sandals rather than shoes. There were no blondes to be seen anywhere. That night, as we were about to fall asleep, something began to make a horrible noise just outside our window. Yvette sat up startled and frightened and asked me, “What’s that?” She had never heard a donkey bray before. I don’t know why we hadn’t heard one before as they were everywhere along the road ever since we crossed the board. We had been warned about driving at night as burros like to sleep on the pavement which absorbs heat during the day and stays warm. All animals - and there many more than above the border - were free to wander at will. Horses, cattle, sheep, and goats, as well as burros, were unrestrained by fences.
Tamazunchale lies at the foot of the Sierra, the mountain chain that forms the east side of the high central plateau where Mexico is situated, and as soon as we drove out of town the next morning we started climbing. The road was well engineered, however, and the grades were not steep. I had to shift into second gear only when I got behind slow moving vehicles. Even here we passed Indians trotting along with huge loads of pottery or other objects they were taking to market at the next village on their backs. It was wild, unsettled country for the most part and to prevent the few remaining bandits from robbing tourists, or perhaps just to reassure the tourists, soldiers were stationed in small groups every few miles. Once, as we rounded a bend, I saw a man in army uniform standing in the road ahead of us motioning for us to stop. Yvette was afraid he might be a bandit in disguise - he was all alone and had a rifle. He was a young soldier, however, who just wanted a ride into the next camp.
Because of the danger of catching a bug of some kind, we seldom ate in restaurants. Yvette packed a picnic lunch to eat at noon but it wasn’t easy to find a good place to stop. There were no shoulders at the side of the pavement wide enough to park a car and that condition existed for as long as we visited Mexico. When I finally found a place I could get off the road between Tamazunchale and Mexico City, it looked like the end of the world, nothing but desert and cactus. We thought we would be undisturbed but in less than five minutes we were surrounded by a band of barefooted Indian women and children who sat down to watch us eat. I have no idea where they came from; we couldn’t see a sign of habitation. Of course, we had to share our lunch tho Yvette warned that peanut butter was not good for babies. They may not have understood Spanish; they made no attempt to talk to us, only giggied when they tried to imitate one of our English words.
As American insurance was not good in Mexico, we had bought Mexican car insurance from Sanborn’s at the border before entering the country. In addition to the insurance, Sanborn made up a pamphlet for you with a yellow cover giving a list of motels, eating places, sights along the way, etc. which was a big help in knowing what to expect. The log listed several motels in Mexico City and told how to get to them. We picked one out a little to the south of Zocale, the big central square. We drove directly there, using the Sanborn map to find our way, arriving about the middle of the afternoon. After cleaning up, we went out the gate (the motel was enclosed by a high iron fence) and walked around the neighborhood to see what there was to see. That was what we usually did when we arrived in a strange place.
We were still staying at the motel when the presidential election took place. It was on Sunday and the voting was done in the streets. The incoming president, I believe, was Comacho but I can’t remember who he replaced but it might have been Cardenas. It was Cardenas who expropriated the oil companies in 1938. Even before we were up that day we heard police and ambulance sirens and occasional shots. The watchman locked the iron gate after crowds of men and boys began running up the street, shouting. Nobody could get in and nobody could get out either. The excitement died down in the afternoon and the gate was opened so Yvette and I walked down the street to one of the polling places, a round point where several streets came together. The streets had been blocked off and a table set up in the center of the circle with a big wooden box on it into which the ballots were to be dropped. Piles of ballots were stacked next to the box. The official we talked to told us that each party had a ballot of a different color, the voter only having to obtain one of the colors he wanted and drop it in the box. A company of soldiers were standing at ease some distance away and the side streets were filled with men holding clubs behind their backs. They all seemed to be good natured; at least they grinned at us when I took their pictures. Tho there is token opposition, there is never any doubt about who will win a Mexican presidential election, and there wasn’t this time, but there is an awful lot of time and money spent by the party in power, PRI, to make it look like a hard battle. The incoming president toured the country making speeches, kissing babies and meeting businessmen and farmers and every bare wall in Mexico was painted with the PRI emblem and “Viva Camacho.”